Persistent Hope

Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25

Persistent Hope

This passage from the oracle of Isaiah has become so familiar to some of us that we fail to realize its significance. Here, God through Isaiah pulls back the curtain of time and enables us to peek into eternity. What we see looks strange and phantasmagorical to us—a bizarre, dream like glimpse into a reality where things just don’t work the way we expect. And yet it also depicts the direction—if not the destination—of God’s redemptive work in us and throughout all of creation.

My friend Mindi sums it up like this: 

Isaiah 65:17-25 contains the prophet’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where the ways of this world no longer have a hold on us. The prophet envisions a time when everyone enjoys what they have worked for, where the struggle of this world disappears and untimely death is no more. This vision is of peace and prosperity, of hope for all, where there is no domination, despair, and exile.

This vision is often too much for us to hope for, and yet it remains the persistent hope and activity of our transforming God. 

Part the First

Unlike Isaiah’s vision [Isaiah 65:17], we are all too aware of “the former things”—those systems and processes that have influenced and frequently impeded progress. In churches as in life, we are often stymied by claims that “we’ve never done it that way before” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work” or “Such-and-such did it that way.” In life as in churches, we often carry our past wounds into the present and the future, often stunted by the pain of grudges and the impossibility of reconciliation and forgiveness in past relationships.

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
(Isaiah 65:17 NRSV)

Part the Second

Similarly [Isaiah 65:18], the idea of newness and change generally creates not gladness or joy, but fear and trepidation. We face a future—and even a present!—that feels uncertain to us. The world doesn’t work the way it used to. The old rules of life no longer produce predictable results. And so most of us struggle to sort out how to live a good life or embody our faith in this new reality. 

Yet God speaks through Isaiah:

“But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.” (Isaiah 65:18 NRSV)

Part the Third

Our world is filled with grief and sorrow [Isaiah 65:19b]; with lives tragically cut short [Isaiah 65:20a]; with people working their whole lives only to have nothing to show for it, or working hour after unending hour at a series of jobs and still not earning enough for their family to eat and survive [Isaiah 65:22a]. We are afraid for the world our children are inheriting [Isaiah 65:23a].

And to all these things, God says “no more!”

“No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:19b NRSV)

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” (Isaiah 65:20a NRSV)

“They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat.” (Isaiah 65:22a NRSV)

“They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity.”
(Isaiah 65:23a NRSV)

The Reversal of Fortunes

The gladness and joy of this vision comes about because in it we catch a glimpse of God’s future when these injustices and fears and pains will be eradicated from the human experience.

Where there are now those who die before living a full life, Isaiah imagines a day when someone even 100 years old is considered an adolescent. [Isaiah 65:20]

Where now far too many do not receive fair compensation for the labors they perform, Isaiah imagines a day when everyone gets what they have worked for. [Isaiah 65:21, 22b]

Where now we fear for the world of our children’s future, Isaiah imagines a day of blessing and wholeness and security that will permeate not just their experience, but the experience of generations to come. [Isaiah 65:23]

Hard Work

What Isaiah anticipates 2500 years ago continues to be the impossible dream of today. 

But what stands out to me is not the content—it is not a matter of what Isaiah describes God doing. What stands out to me is that nowhere in the scriptures is it suggested that these transformations of ourselves and of the created order will be easy. 

If anything, we should expect they be hard. In last week’s reading from Haggai, this transformation was described in earthquake-like terms:

“For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations” (Haggai 2:6–7a NRSV)

The book of Revelation—in peeking behind the curtain some years later—envisions the Lord God of Hosts (or more literally, “Yahweh, commander of armies”) waging war on the forces of darkness as God brings about the imagined world Isaiah suggests. Jesus—our front-line general in this conflict—is depicted as a military leader through whom God will achieve victory. In chapter 19 of Revelation we read:

“Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.

And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”” (Revelation 19:11–16 NRSV)

Nowhere in the bible is it suggested that these changes will come about with a snap of God’s fingers. Everywhere we look, we see difficult language describing how God will make these things so—throughout history, and through those among us who partner with God.

It will not be a simple matter for all of creation to be transformed according to God’s desires. ……Just as it is not easy for our individual hearts to be transformed into Christ-likeness. 

Where Are We?

Which brings us to another point…… Isaiah describes what God is doing. But where are we in all this? If we imagine that cosmic battle illustrated in Revelation, whose side are we on? What are we doing to advance the cause of Christ? 

If we want to be on God’s side, then we will be working towards the fulfillment of God’s priorities. We will be working to achieve God’s vision of peace and wholeness.

This is not, of course, something we can do on our own. Author Dallas Willard has written that “The greatest temptation to evil that humanity ever suffers is the temptation to make a ‘Jerusalem’ happen by human means” (The Divine Conspiracy, p.380). What he means is that we try to use our own power and ability to bring about the reign of Christ in the world. But doing this—whether through our attempts to legislate morality, to establish a “Christian nation,” or whatever—it always winds up “eliminating truth, or mercy, or both.” 

This is not God’s way. These are not God’s weapons. 

God’s way and weapon is love. It is relationship. It is invitation. 

It is impossible to advance the cause of Christ while utilizing the powers of this world. Only the power of the Kingdom of God as known and expressed through Jesus will bring about the vision of Isaiah, and John, and even of you and I today. 

This hope of transformation has persisted throughout the centuries and millennia because God has written it on our hearts. Because it is an intrinsic part of God’s redemptive plan—not just in this life, but for all of eternity. Because ultimately, this life here and now is a training ground for our eternal work and existence with God. No matter our biological age, we are now children and adolescents whom our Divine Parent wishes to train, and in whom our Divine Parent wants to instill certain priorities and values and lessons. This is boot camp, preparing for the day when we can be set loose in God’s universe and empowered to “reign with him,” as the scriptures imagine.

This future reality is what gives meaning and purpose to it all. 

And for those of us who place our trust in the One True God, we realize that there is nothing that will prevent God’s purposes from being fulfilled. There is no way that the enemy can derail this vision of life as God intends it to be lived. There are no obstacles that keep us from the love of Christ, and the fullness of Kingdom life that begins now with our “rebirth”, and continues, unabated by death, into the eternal future with our loving God.

There is a reason for this persistent hope. And that reason is God. The very God who loves you, who has committed an eternity of resources to develop you into who you are created to be, and who will never—NEVER!—give up. As Eugene Peterson was said to sum up the gospel message:

God loves you.
God is on your side.
God is coming after you.
And God is relentless.

Misplaced Hope

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch & Michael Mertchenko.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 10:5-15

The Challenge of Ministry

I know it seems like I say this a lot, but today’s scripture lesson is one that really challenges me. I probably say it so often because Jesus really challenges me—as I believe he does us all if we’re really paying attention.

The verses we read today are about ministry—but they’re not just for clergy. Twelve followers of Jesus are named right before our reading began, but this is an ever-widening circle. In Luke’s telling (chapters 9-10), the commissioning of the Twelve is followed by a commissioning of the Seventy. By the time we get to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 (and certainly Matthew 28), it is clear that the commission soon involves not just a select few, but rather and even “all those who will believe in [Jesus] through their word” (John 17:20 NRSV). 

At this early stage, however, Jesus is sending the Twelve among the Jewish people and giving them the power to do the same kinds of ministry that Jesus himself has been doing:

Preach that God’s Kingdom is coming near,

Heal the sick,

Raise the dead,

Restore the ostracized,

Bring wholeness to the demonized,

And demonstrate radical generosity.

Believe it or not, these are the same kinds of things the Church of Jesus Christ is called to do even today. And for that reason, maybe we’d do well to consider the next instructions too. 

“Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.”
(Matthew 10:9–10 NRSV)

One of the big, omnipresent issues in the biblical story is our human struggles with trusting and relying on God. This struggle is at the heart of virtually every failure we’ve enacted in the biblical storybook—from Adam and Eve, to the destruction of Israel and then Judah, to even the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. And even here in Matthew 10, Judas is named among the Twelve that goes out and performs these remarkable and miraculous tasks. 

But Jesus doesn’t give them much opportunity to trust themselves instead of God. Everything that would make them self-reliant, they must leave behind. Every resource that might appear to support a more successful mission trip, they are to avoid. As Jesus stacks the deck thusly against them, it will be undeniable that any successful ministry they undertake can only be traced back to God. 

“Laborers deserve their food”
(Matthew 10:10 NRSV)

It’s helpful to remember that: being given by Jesus the power even to raise the dead does not mean ministry is going to be easy…… It is going to be labor; it’s going to be work. 

A lot of folks read this teaching in different ways:

Some think Jesus is trying to get them to see this as important work instead of a vacation.

Others suggest they will be motivated to work harder by their growling stomachs.

But I guess I’m more simple than a lot of others. Since this teaching is connected to all the things they aren’t supposed to bring, I can’t help but think Jesus is just trying to make sure they know that doing ministry isn’t a free ride— following Jesus’ example in these ways will likely be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life. You’ll wish for safety nets that aren’t there. You’ll pray for more certainty than you’ll ever have. But you’ll probably find yourself as a simple day-laborer in the cause of Christ—working day to day (or more often moment to moment) and without much clarity or security about the future. 

We most likely find ourselves drawn into an encounter that lasts a moment, a day, a week, or whatever, and then the encounter is past. We never get to see the big picture. We never get to know what happens next. We just know that we have to be ready and available when the Spirit does her thing. And in a world that cultivates addiction to busyness, being ready and available is a lot harder than it sounds.

“If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”
(Matthew 10:13–14 NRSV)

Now we get to the really sticky part: sometimes we try to respond to the Spirit and our “peace” finds a home; sometimes it does not. 

Did we misread the signs?

Was God not in it after all?

What does “successful” ministry look like, anyway?

Moving to Life…

And maybe we’d be better off here removing the word “ministry” altogether—I think the message remains the same.

Sometimes, things don’t work out as you hope.
Sometimes, life doesn’t work out as you hope. 

And a lot of the time, it’s not just as simple as making lemons into lemonade. Sometimes, our attempts to do the right thing results in us losing peace—or at least sleep—and ending up feeling dirty from the whole encounter. What then?

Maybe now you see why I believe that Jesus’ instructions here aren’t helpful for just ministry and evangelism. There’s wisdom here about how to let go of bad experiences or relationships so we can continue on living. Because there are going to be times in life when things don’t work out—regardless of our best intentions and hopes. 

Thinking back to the book, I believe there’s a “Ronald” in each of our lives—and probably more than one. A “Ronald” is something we thought was going to change everything and give us a happily ever after. 

Maybe your “Ronald” was a person—someone with whom you had a relationship……

Maybe your “Ronald” was an opportunity—that job or connection that was going to turn everything around……

Maybe your “Ronald” was an object—something that seemed like it was going to be the be-all, end-all……that was going to end your search or longing for the right thing……

Whatever your “Ronald” was, you did try hard, you did try to make things happen and work out, but your “Ronald” let you down……and let you down even harder.

Death & Grief

These misplaced hopes are a kind of death, really. 

The death of a future that is no longer a possibility

The death of a relationship that can never be what was dreamed

The death of a quest, and by association, a purpose

We’re not well equipped to grieve this kind of death. Instead giving ourselves permission to grieve, we feel silly, like we shouldn’t have gotten our hopes up……

like we shouldn’t have become so emotionally invested to begin with……

like we were fools to miss whatever signs we now imagine were there at the beginning……

So we bury our grief, and we pretend that these deaths don’t even slow us down.

Back to Jesus…

Maybe……maybe these ancient words of Jesus can help us even today. Maybe within these teachings, we can find the interface between treading lightly in this world and investing deeply.

Because I think that’s what this is all about here, really. The kinds of ministry that Jesus empowers in the Twelve are a deep investment. 

I have seen the sick healed. 

I have seen those who were virtually dead—or even medically dead—come back to life. 

I have seen those who were ostracized find integration and community.

I have seen those who wrestle with demons find wholeness.

I have seen God do all these things, through cracked vessels like you and I. And the one thing I can tell you about all of them is that they are exhausting. 

It takes time to build relationships. 

It takes emotional energy to be present in heartache. 

It takes humility to truly hear someone else. 

It takes wisdom to discern where God is leading. 

It takes a lot of hard work and deep investment before any of it becomes possible.

And without investing deeply (and at times recklessly) in others, these things just aren’t going to happen. And then the Kingdom of God does not come nearer.

Balance & Outro

But there’s a balance that is urged, at the same time. Our fully human Savior Jesus the Christ advocates for that with us and with our God. 

Even in calling his followers to such deep investment, Jesus cautions them to tread lightly on this earth. 

Don’t take extra provisions. 

Don’t rely on your own resources. 

Don’t suppose you can make the Spirit show up by pushing the right buttons and saying an prayerful incantation. 

Don’t “store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19–20 NRSV)

As a church: If we are so invested in something that we cannot “shake the dust from our feet” when it stops working, then that is a sign we have come to trust in ourselves to make it happen instead of trusting God to make it happen.

As followers of Jesus: If we are so stuck in our imagining about how things are supposed to be that we cannot offer others the freedom to follow their own path and be different than us, then that is a sign that we have come to trust in ourselves instead of trusting in God..

As human beings of any faith or no faith: If we are so closed to the plight of those with less than us that we dismiss the violence they experience, then it is we who have ceased being human.

 

May we discover in God’s goodness and mercy the capacity to extend mercy to all—even ourselves—when the future we imagined and the future we encounter fail to line up.

An Elegy for the Dead

Today–for whatever reason (who knows why these things are so?)–I am keenly aware of those I have buried. It’s a number of greater magnitude than I often realize, until I try to recite their names or pray through my list (yes, I keep a list and pray through it).

They are a host who follow me–and precede me–and remain with me everywhere I go. I see them in the visage and mannerisms of strangers. I feel them when my story overlaps their own–as my experiences are written on top of their grand family tales, invoking a mystifying sort of deja vu. Their memory calls forth a kind of melancholy gladness.

Grieving them has changed me–has bound our spirits together in a peculiar kind of unity unlike any other.

You are loved, dear friends–my sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers. You are loved.

Lent: Revolution

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

Revolution

This week’s Lenten theme is “revolution.” And among other things, that means I’ve had a song stuck in my head all week.

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world…

So begins one of those anthems from the late 60’s. Some of you were probably singing along before I even got to the end of that third line.

For whatever reason, I almost always think of this song when the word “revolution” comes up. But despite its pop-ey, upbeat melody, the Beatles’ song Revolution has always sounded a bit skeptical to me.

Maybe it’s lines like “we’re doing what we can,” where it feels as though they are acknowledging that “what we can” just isn’t enough yet.

Maybe it’s my own skepticism when people claim to have “a real solution” or a “plan” to the complex problems of our world.

Maybe it’s the awareness that changing the “constitution” or the “institutions” doesn’t translate into changes in “head,” heart, or “mind,” as the later verses acknowledge.

But I also think this song resonates with me because I identify with the kind of melancholy hope it suggests. I do believe that “we all want to change the world,” even if we are misguided or don’t know how to do it. I really do believe that the average person is “doing what they can” to make it a better place. And my faith tells me that “it’s going to be all right, all right, all right……”

Our scripture text today provides some key insights into the revolution of love that Jesus initiates in the world–a revolution that we (as his followers) continue to pursue and practice as we pray: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

But first: let us begin our reading with John 11:1-16.

Part I: John 11:1-16

 

Overcoming Fear of Being Hurt by Others

Jesus and his friends have a lot of genuine concerns in this first section of verses from our scripture reading.

They are concerned about their friend Lazarus’ illness

The disciples have concerns about Jesus’ judgment

There are concerns about encountering resistance from those opposing Jesus’ ministry

There is the genuine possibility of physical harm

And there is even a possibility—as voiced by Thomas/Didymus—that this brief road trip back to Bethany could be the end of the line for the Jesus movement

They are—quite in fact—putting themselves into direct harm by going to their friends’ side. Last time they were there—just days before, it appears—the locals tried to kill them. In order to walk with Jesus, the disciples have to overcome the fear of being hurt by others. In order to advance Jesus’ revolution, they must obey him to the point of laying down their very own lives on account of Jesus’ great love for others.

Let’s read some more……

Part II: John 11:17-27

 

Overcoming Fear of Death Itself

One does not make friends by being late to a funeral. You can be late to almost anything else in life, but if you are late to a funeral, the family of the deceased will write you off as someone who never really cared. I can’t help believe that reality has always been so.

I have witnessed too many heated exchanges after funerals to imagine this confrontation between Martha and Jesus in any other way. At least, that’s the way it begins. Jesus has a way of simultaneously diffusing and exacerbating the depth of emotion around him.

Jesus is so late he missed the funeral entirely. Martha, hearing Jesus is finally in town, goes out to meet him. Mary stays home, perhaps not even wanting to see Jesus’ face at this time of deep grief and perceived betrayal.

Yet within Martha’s grief remains the kernel of faith. She knows that “with God all things are possible,” as Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels (Mt 19:26; Mk 10:27). And with that faith comes a hope—the hope of resurrection both in the next life and in this one. Her hope allows her to overcome the fear of death itself. For in the revolution of Jesus, the impossible becomes possible

But our story is not yet over……

Part III: John 11:28-45

 

Overcoming the Grave

Jesus, as scripture testifies, is genuinely moved by the grief of his friends and his own grief. I have sat with so many grieving folks over the years—folks that too often think grief demonstrates a lack of faith on their part. They believe that if only their faith were stronger they could face death with a certain casualness and rationality, instead of experiencing such heartbreak and devastation.

This story should completely and utterly undermine that way of thinking. There has not been another human being on earth in all of history whose faith and utter reliance on God can be compared with Jesus. Yet here we find him—devastated and weeping—at the death of his friend. Even though he is going to invite Lazarus to rejoin the living in just moments, this text shows that even Jesus has to discover the hope that overcomes the grave.

Fear & Revolution

Fear is a powerful motivator, and (according to the experts in such things) fear of death is the strongest motivator of all. It’s a beneficial evolutionary trait, the scientists say; fear keeps us alive.

But in coming to earth—in living and loving and dying—Jesus initiates a revolution of love.

No longer will we be bound and limited by fear.

No longer will death hold sway over us.

No longer will fear form the basis of our life and relationships.

In the revolution began in Christ, “perfect love drives out fear,” as we read in 1John 4:18. And (as this story of Jesus demonstrates) perfect love is made real in our world when we risk ourselves for one another. In a few more chapters (in John 15:13), Jesus will make this even more clear to us when he says “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (NIV11).

(In our text this morning) Hope overcame fear only because Jesus and his disciples were willing to risk their own lives to be with Martha and Mary. In doing so, they made love real in the world, and they advanced this revolution Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.

By the ways of this world, fear keeps us alive. But according to the revolution of Jesus, it is in risking ourselves for others that we discover eternal life.

As we learn to see through Jesus’ eyes, we observe that fear binds and limits us, while hope frees us up to the limitless possibilities of our God-given potential.

What we are talking about here is not merely a reformation of our thinking and being, as we discussed with the Nicodemus text a couple weeks back (March 12). Nor is this a resolution to challenge our faulty ways of thinking, as we discussed last week in story of the blind man’s healing.

Here Jesus is demonstrating the way of revolution—the way to “overcome the world,” as Jesus will explicitely state in John 16:33. His actions here demonstrate how to subvert the powers of the world, how to free ourselves from the slavery of the fear of death, how to experience the liberating hope of God’s redemption, and how to live in the abundant life of God.

The means of accomplishing all of this… the means of advancing this revolution is this: to overcome fear with love.

Conclusion

Now, even though we’ve worked through 45 verses this morning, the story is still far from over. In fact, John’s gospel becomes a bit of a page turner at this point, as each story builds into the next. You see, before the chapter ends, the author provides some significant foreshadowing, telling us that this resurrection of Lazarus echoes with consequences all the way to the office of the High Priest.

Jesus’ life has been threatened before, but it was always by impassioned crowds reacting to their traditions being questioned. Here, at the end of John chapter 45, there begins an intentional, covert plan of action with the purpose of ending Jesus’ life. Here, at the end of this chapter, Jesus can no longer move about publicly, instead hiding in the wilderness outside a small town.

Beginning at the end of this chapter, things get even more dangerous for Jesus, as there is a building expectation that Jesus will make another dangerous choice—another choice to go where peril is certain—this time, to go to Jerusalem and die.

It’s a pattern in Jesus’ life precisely because it is the means of the Jesus revolution:

Risk yourself for others and love will conquer fear.

Risk yourself for others and hope will overpower despair.

Risk yourself for others and the Kingdom of God will be advanced.

“You say you want a revolution”? You want to save the world?

Choose love, even at personal expense.

Choose hope, even when it hurts.

Choose Christ, even when it costs you the world.

Pray

God,

Our scripture text today is permeated with emotion,
And most prominent among these is love.

May we remember the lessons of this chapter:
That love combats fear,
Love comforts grief,
Love grows faith,
And love—yes love—even conquers the grave.

Thank you for the example of love
that we have in your son, our Savior, Jesus the Christ.
And give us the courage to offer all of ourselves
in the cause of Christ, the revolution of love,
that is the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

Be Watchful

Scripture: Psalm 130

Waiting for the Morning

Finally, the sun began to rise.

I hadn’t really slept for hours, often staring out the window in anticipation for this…very…moment.

The orange-and-rose streaked sky shone across my face as I glanced across the room at the man in the hospital bed, hooked up to all sorts of tubes and monitors. “We made it,” I thought—or was it a prayer?

It had been a long night, the darkness punctuated by alarms beeping and nurses running to assist. There had been several close calls.

I smiled weakly at the man’s spouse as our eyes met. I imagine her head was also echoing with the surgeon’s words—words we had heard just hours ago—was it only hours? It seemed like days.

I smiled again at the sunrise as the surgeon’s words echoed a second time in my head: “If he makes it through the night, he should be OK.”

“Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord…
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning”
(vv.1, 5).

I know the joy of the morning after the darkest night. And I have smiled at every sunrise since.

Waiting

Last week (Psalm 23), I spoke of the power of presence—a power beyond words. The Psalm this week continues that theme of presence, focusing it under particular circumstance: that of waiting.

Waiting is not popular; it is not chic. We want what we want, and we want it now. If we cannot have our purchase at the moment we pay for it, we will take our business elsewhere. Or even better, we get our purchase before we pay for it, using credit and borrowing against our future.

We may not like waiting, but waiting is life. We wait in lines. We wait in traffic. We wait for that movie to be released. We wait for our kids to get out of school. We wait for our plane to take off, or land.

People who study these things—God only knows why—they tell us that the average person spends two weeks or more of their lifetime simply waiting at stop lights. Waiting in general may total five years or more of one’s lifespan.

Waiting is life, but that doesn’t mean we are good at it. It may (in fact) be our least-developed life skill. But that just means it is even more significant when we wait with one another.

The reason why is obvious. Time is truly the most valuable thing we possess. It cannot be traded or sold. We never know how much we have. And we cannot acquire more.

The Gift of Time

But time can be gifted. Maybe this is why the presence of another person impacts us so profoundly—Even if we do not acknowledge it consciously, we somehow recognize that they have given up a part of their very life to be with us.

And when that gift of time comes during a time of waiting—especially when we join another in the “depths” of life—it is truly the greatest gift we can give: To join another person in the mundane, soul-wrenching task of waiting. In the surgical waiting room at the hospital. In line at the DMV. By the phone expecting news of a relative in the military.

When we wait with another person, we gift them a part of our life—quite literally: these seconds, these minutes, these hours of my life, I offer up on the alter of my love for you. Why? Because you are that important to me.

That is love. That is, quite literally, the greatest love even Jesus can imagine. In John 15:13, Jesus tells us: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” When we wait with someone—especially in the dark, uncomfortable depths of tragedy and unknowing—then we lay down our life for our friend, and we embody the greatest love we can show.

Be Watchful

Because of all of this, I believe this psalm’s instruction to us this Lenten season is “Be watchful,” which of course involves attentive waiting.

On some level that means “Pay attention!” because God is at work and we need to see that.

On another level that means “Be patient!” because we have to wrestle with the night in order to really know the joy of the sunrise.

But it also means “Be present!” because we love and serve others most like God does when we give up the most valuable thing in life: time. And this involves being watchful not just of what God is doing in the lives of others, but also being watchful of where we can be present in the lives of those we love, of what their needs are, and of what we can do to give as God has so graciously given to us.

 

Communion Connection

Now, as I am wrapping up this morning, I cannot help but make a connection between the lessons of Psalm 130 and the Table before me.

Much as we do in preparing to take Communion, this psalm—this prayer, this song—confesses our sins, and it admits that we can never stand before God on our own merit: “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” (v.3).

The psalm then goes on to to assure us of forgiveness: “But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered” (v.4).

The Psalm then, like the Lord’s Table, reminds us to wait expectantly for God. In the psalm, the singer awaits deliverance (and maybe even forgiveness) with a hungry hope. At the Table, we remember that we await the return of our savior, Jesus Christ, in that day-of-days that will end all days, the time when our salvation and our transformation will be made complete, and we will be fully with God and like God.

The psalmist, like the Communion service, reminds us that there is redemption with this God, there is resurrection with this God. The day will come, when we will climb (with our God) out of the dark depths of this life and into the sunrise of an eternal tomorrow, to know fully and experience eternally the steadfast love of our God.

Be watchful, and wait with me. God is on mission. God is present with us. And God is building that tomorrow for us, today.

Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ is coming again.
Amen.

Be Cared For

Scripture: Psalm 23

Saying the Wrong Things

It happens in an instant.

The phone rings. Death. Tragedy. Loss.
In a moment, the world turns upside down. Disorientation. Anger. Fear.
Your plans are meaningless. A funeral. An unexpected trip. An unforeseen expense.

It happens to all of us at some point in time or another.
And it certainly happens to our friends and family members, too.

 

What do we do when tragedy befalls a loved one? What do we say?

As a minster, I’ve heard it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly—as well-intentioned people attempt to fill the void in their friend, mother, son, brother, or other relative.

I stress “well-intentioned” because I believe that is true, regardless of how insensitive or presumptious our comments may be. We genuinely want to ease our loved one’s suffering.

We want to try to lift their spirits, so we say things like “Hey, it’s not so bad! Think of all those worse off than you!” or “Think of how much worse it could have been!”

The unintended result is that we invalidate their feelings and suggest they are overreacting to their circumstances. At a time when people are seeking comfort and peace, we infuse their troubled minds with guilt. Not helpful, to say the least.

Maybe other times we want to try to abolish their darkness—to affirm the light that is still there. Sometimes this means here as well we tell people to look on the bright side, but more often we speak insensitive slogans that do not stand up to any theological rigor. You know, things like: “I guess it was God’s plan.” Or, “God wanted your young daughter in heaven.” Or, “It’s hard to see from our perspective, but from God’s perspective it’s better this way.”

Woah. Let me say quite directly that there is nothing more insensitive and nothing more false that you can say to a person grieving death than to suggest that God has selfishly taken away their loved one without consideration for any other factor. Death is always tragic, often sudden, and quite frequently the product of the decisions human beings make in free will. When we say that “God made that drunk driver take out Aunt Susie because God needed her voice in the heavenly choir,” then what we speak is unkind, uncompassionate, unthoughtful, unChristian, and flat-out untrue.

We often say the wrong things, and when we do, we give power to the darkness that we are trying to abolish.

So what do we do? And how do we care for one another as our friends and family traverse their valleys of the shadow of death?

Psalm 23 (I believe) gives us an answer.

Psalm 23 Overview

We know this psalm. We use it in funerals. We read it in weddings. We recite it in worship. Along with the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 is the longest scripture passage most Christians ever bother to memorize.

And it is a prayer. It is a song. It is a testimony of life, of provision, of protection, and of presence. It bears witness of God’s faithfulness and presence in times of blessing and plenty, and in times of starkness and danger, both when cups overflow and when enemies surround.

Where is God in Psalm 23?

God is “with me.” That is where God is in each and every moment of the Psalmist’s testimony.

  • God is the shepherd, who is with the Psalmist in ensuring needs are met.
  • God is the one present in leading to places of provision and protection.
  • God is the one who dispels fear—why?—because of God’s presence, both literally and through the symbols of God’s power and strength.
  • God is the one preparing celebration, even in the midst of threat.
  • God is the one anointing and equipping for the challenges and mission of life with God.
  • God is the one responsible for the goodness and mercy that the psalmist experiences.

Where is God? God is present.

And it is God’s presence that dispels the darkness the psalmist experiences, that allows him to depart that dark valley and return to the fertile plain, that makes him able to survive the threats and attacks of his enemies and come to a place of feasting and celebration again. It is God’s presence that does those things, for the psalmist and for us.

“Christian”

Now we call ourselves Christians, and what does that mean? It means we are “little Christs.” It means that we embody Christ’s presence and love in this world by shaping our walk and way of life to conform with that of our Savior. That’s what it means. And if you’re not willing to “walk as Jesus walked,” as the author of 1John puts it, you shouldn’t be calling yourself a Christian, no matter how many times you go to church.

So now if we are “little Christs,” and if Jesus is in fact the incarnation of God in the world (in other words, Jesus most fully shows us who God is and what God is like), then it follows that in seeking to be Christian, we are seeking to be God-like.

Here’s what I’m trying to say. As we read in Psalm 23, we see God ministering to the psalmist in a time of tragedy and great need. But God doesn’t say: “Look on the bright side; it could be worse!” Nor does God suggest that the psalmist’s perspective is too small or his faith is too weak by claiming that “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

What does God do? God walks with the psalmist. God is presence—beside the still waters and in the valley of the shadow of death, in the presence of enemies and in the house of God. God is present—always, completely, fully present.

Now I can’t tell you how or why presence works so effectively for us (I have some theories, but they are all incomplete pictures at best), but I can certainly state with confidence that there is nothing so powerful as the presence of a friend. There is nothing so caring that we can do for each other than to be present with them and for them, in times of joy and in times of sorrow.

The truth is, we have nothing that we can say. No words will take away the pain. No explanation will somehow remove the sting of suffering. And we should exercise far more caution before presuming to speak for God.

But there is something we each have to offer, regardless of our circumstance. And that is our presence. And offering our presence is a very godly thing to do.

Two Sides

Now there are two sides to this.

There’s the caregiver side. You are the one who wants to care for your friend that has experienced tragedy. Your mere presence—even a silent presence—dispels more darkness than all the words you could say and all the casseroles you can bake.

But there’s also the care-receiver side. You are the one who is experiencing tragedy and loss. And more and more, I see people who insist on going through these things alone. That breaks my heart. So-and-so has cancer, but doesn’t tell anyone until it’s in remission. Him-or-her lost her job, but won’t tell anyone because she feels shame. This person’s son is being bullied. That person’s sister is being abused.

And they do it alone. I don’t know, maybe your’re just stronger than I am—I just know that my instinct is to close out the world as well.

What I am learning is that we are preventing our own healing by shutting out each other. We are prolonging our suffering by isolating ourselves. We are blocking the light from dispelling the darkness that we are in.

As Christians—the presence of Christ—the presence of God in the world—we have the ability to be a healing presence in the lives of those we know. But it cannot happen if we are not willing to be cared for.

Being Cared For

Let me tell you a story. I’d been a minister for about three years. I’d been in-and-out of hospitals more times than I could count. I’d sat with families in surgical waiting rooms. I’d held hands with people while they breathed their last breath in earthly life. Weddings. Funerals. Baby dedications.

Though it had only been three years, I had really walked with a lot of people through a lot of dark valleys and even along some fertile plains beside still waters.

But then I had my own surgery—a hernia repair. And six weeks later, my appendix burst.

My instinct—despite what I knew, preached, and attempted to live out in that community of faith—was to close myself off. Show no weakness. Get better before revealing how bad I was.

But you know what? No one listened.

I was inundated by friends and members of that congreagation who insisted on visiting and being with me. With many of them, it was a complete role reversal, as I had been visiting them in the hospital just weeks or months prior.

No one offered empty platitudes, trying to make sense of my suffering for me. No one suggested God caused my appendix to burst (though many of us recognized God’s provision in getting me safely and quickly to where I could receive treatment).

These people came to sit with me. They came to be a healing presence when I was broken.

And I have never forgotten that. Because it worked. Being cared for by the ministry of presence healed and strengthened me in ways that I cannot explain. The Lord, it was clear, was with me through them, shepherding me, leading me to green pastures, walking with me through the darkest valleys, standing with me in the presence of my enemies. Ever present, overflowing the cup of my life.

Ministry of Presence

Many churches say that “every member is a minister.” I used to be a member of a congregation that printed that above the pastor’s name on the bulletin each Sunday.

And I believe it. Every member is a minister, and each of us has the responsibility of caring for one another. We probably don’t do a good enough job equipping our members for their ministry of being caregivers. But please remember that the best, most powerful, and often only thing we have to offer is the same presence that God graces to us—in the good and the bad, when things are easy and when things are uncomfortable, in times of plenty and in times of desperation.

It is in God’s image that we are made, and it is our gift of presence—when everyone else runs away—that makes us more fully like God.

 

Be willing to be cared for—it truly will change your life.
And care for each other, just as God cares for you.

Finding Joy?

Scripture: Isaiah 12:2-6

It Begins.

I had already written another sermon by the time I heard of the tragedy that took place at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

I intended to speak on the subject of Finding Joy, continuing my Advent series. But as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us “For everything there is a season…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (3:1, 4). Today, we weep and we mourn.

At 9:40 am on Friday, when the shooter forced his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School, my daughter was in her kindergarden class here at Atchison Elementary. She is only a year younger than most of those who died on Friday. Her class is made up of 20 children, the same number as those children who were killed. And when I dropped her off that morning, I took it for granted that she would return home. But Friday, there were 20 children who did not return home.

And you know what? Despite the fact that Sandy Hook Elementary School is 1322 miles away (according to Google), I had to fight the urge to go and bring her home. I had to fight the parental reflex to protect, even in the most irrational of circumstances.

We kept our children close on Friday afternoon and evening, and we have every day since.

Because that whirlwind of emotion continues to grow and change.

Outrage at the shooting of innocents has been supplemented by outrage at the media. I still cannot believe that I saw interviews on Friday with other children who were at the school during the shooting. Really?!? Interviews with children?!? Haven’t they already been traumatized enough for one day?

And then came outrage at the talking heads who began the blame game. It’s the Republican’s fault for not allowing stricter gun control. It’s the Democrat’s fault for taking prayer out of schools. It’s America’s fault for not being a Christian nation.

Asking Why.

Everyone is asking why. But no one seems all that interested in listening for an answer to that question.

Before anyone has any time to actually reflect and try to answer that question, we jump from the question of “why” to the question of “what can we do to prevent it?” And the more I listen to people talking, the more I realize that “what can we do to prevent it from happening again?” is really just a dishonest way of asking, “how can I use this to my advantage?”

Because when I listen to the news, troll through the blogosphere, or check out my Facebook feed, that is really what I see. The people who have been lobbying for increased gun control are, not surprisingly, trying to use this tragedy to make their case. On the other end of the spectrum, those who have lobbied for increased carry permits are, also not surprisingly, claiming that their pet project could have prevented this tragedy. Preachers and proponents of prayer in schools are claiming that this has happened because we took prayer out of schools and forgotten our roots as a Christian nation. And of course those who are against video games have jumped on this too.

For all these people, the death of 28 innocents is just one more piece of evidence to put forward to prove they are right, just one more poker chip in the game of life, just one more tool to accomplish their agenda.

It is horrific.

It is not just the shooter who has taken and destroyed life. It is also every news commentator, preacher, Facebook poster, blog writer, or anyone else who wields this shooting in their own little war against the world.

How trite have we become? How selfish and self-centered? How is it that we have forgotten how to be human?

Because, somehow, I think that is at the root of it all: We have forgotten how to be human.

Answering Why.

The short answer to “why” has nothing to do with gun control or prayer; Republicans, Democrats, or even America. Tragedies like this one happen because there is evil in the world. Not—because we’re not praying in schools. Not—because we’re not a Christian nation. And certainly not—because God wills it.

The final battle has not yet been waged, and until then, another power exerts control in this world. You might call that power Satan or the Devil, but I call that power: cruelty, selfishness, hate, poverty, hostility, manipulation, divisiveness, violence.

These things don’t happen because one person is evil, they happen because we are all tainted by evil. We all have violence in us, and we all do violence to other people in our words, in our actions, and in our lack of action. And lest anyone object, remember that 1 John 1:10 says, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

Somehow the powers of evil in this world have not only convinced us to trust in ourselves, rather than in God; not only have they convinced us that we have to look out for ourselves, rather than “in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3); but they have also convinced us that we do not need to acknowledge others as human at all. The powers of darkness have convinced us that our neighbors are tools to be used, commodities to be bought and sold in the marketplace of power and money.

But these are beings made in the image of God, beings we are told to love as though they were our very selves.

We look to the person of Jesus as an example of how we are to live. And when we do so, we tend to think of those pure spiritual characteristics of Jesus that we believe we are to embody. But in my complicated emotions today, I wonder if Jesus came to teach us how to be human, as well.

Hospitality. Sharing. Kindness. Honesty. Compassion. Love. These are not exclusively divine characteristics that we failingly aspire to. These are human characteristics that we needed a divine being to remind us of.

Darkness.

It is Advent. Each week we light another candle, symbolizing the gradual in-breaking of the light of God in the world. As the light slowly grows, we anticipate the coming Light of the world.

Tragedy makes that light seem so dim. It makes peace look so weak. It makes love seem so foolish. It makes hope look so bleak. And joy?…joy looks impossible.

It’s dark. It’s really, really dark. And in moments like this, when we look away from the light, we see just how truly dark our world is. And it is terrifying.

But I keep going back to one of our traditional Christmas texts, the opening verses of the Gospel of John. It speaks of the Word, creation, and light. And speaking of Jesus as the light, John tells us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

The irrationality of the slaying of innocents has a way of making the entire world seem like it is out of control. Everything is off-kilter. It makes us lose our sense of direction.

But yet the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Lives end, all far too quickly. Families are broken. A community is devastated.

But yet the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The scripture text I read, on which my original sermon was based, concludes the first major division in the book of Isaiah, a section of Isaiah’s oracle that has largely focused on God’s judgment against the ancient Israelites for the injustices they have committed and their faithlessness regarding God.

But coming on the heels of those difficult words is the cool and refreshing words of Isaiah 12, expressing the confident hope that God will yet provide salvation to God’s people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This tragedy reminds us that we still live in darkness, and that we are still in need of the light of God’s love.

I believe God grieves with us in this tragedy. I believe God actively works to prevent this and other tragedies. But we have free will. And we live in a world where evil reigns.

But the darkness will not overcome the light. God will yet provide salvation.

And on that day, we will beat our swords into plowshares.

On that day, the lion will lay down with the lamb.

On that day, we will teach our children war no more.

On that day, the light will rise to full noonday height, dispelling the darkness forever.

Until then, we pray. And we live lives of hope, peace, and even joy as we carry the flame of Christ’s love into the world.

May God forgive us, and may we become people of peace.